Across Essex County, one out of every five households lacks a basic computer. Approximately 160,000 residents live without high-speed internet access.
But the digital divide – the gap between those with access to technology and those without – runs much deeper than hardware and broadband. And it is often closely tied to disparities in other areas, such as income and housing. The digital divide is a longtime challenge that has been laid bare by COVID-19 – particularly in healthcare and education – and one of the issues consistently raised by community leaders during an Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF) convening in the spring focused on moving the social sector forward in a post-pandemic world.
In response to that shared concern, ECCF turned to the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life to commission a baseline report on the digital divide in Essex County. The newly released report, which can be found in both English and Spanish, at eccf.org, was outlined in an Oct. 20 virtual event, hosted by ECCF and attended by nearly 200 local and regional leaders.
“In addition to being a resource for individual Essex County communities, this data could really lay the foundation for collaborative, countywide solutions to the digital divide,” said Stratton Lloyd, ECCF’s executive vice president and COO. “We look forward to working with all the participants in the system – for-profit, nonprofit, government and philanthropy – to determine how we can best amplify and expand the good work happening across the county. There is a lot of possibility and potential to work together as a region on this.”
The report, which drills data down to each of the region’s 34 cities and towns, and even individual neighborhoods and streets, also highlights areas where the lack of digital access is particularly low for people of color. The data also shows that while the most economically disadvantaged cities may fare worse overall, the digital divide cuts across every community in the region.
“This is not a marginal problem,” said Center for State Policy Analysis Executive Director Evan Horowitz.
Beyond computers and broadband, there are additional elements that affect just how deep the digital divide goes. These include privacy: having a comfortable working or learning space, and training: opportunities to build skills and comfort with computers.
“We treat digital equity as a multi-dimensional issue. It’s really important to think about all of these digital dimensions,” said Horowitz, who noted that while the focus is often placed on access and equipment, it’s not always where the root of the problem is found.
Solving social challenges at their roots is core to ECCF’s community leadership work to help create sustainable, resilient communities. But it requires all of us – nonprofits, municipalities, government and business leaders, educators and philanthropists – to come together to work towards those solutions.
“Our intention with this digital divide study is to spark meaningful discussions not only about the challenges we face here in Essex County, but also the opportunities that arise from those challenges,” said ECCF President and CEO Beth Francis. “Part of our work is the convening work and making sure the right people are at the table. Only then can we catalyze change together.”
Read the full study, Striving for Digital Equity, and watch a recording of the Oct. 20 event, at eccf.org. For more information on the Center for State Policy Analysis, please visit tischcollege.tufts.edu/cspa.
The mission of Essex County Community Foundation is to inspire philanthropy that strengthens the communities of Essex County. We do this by managing charitable assets, strengthening and supporting nonprofits and engaging in strategic community leadership. Since 1998, ECCF and its family of more than 230 charitable funds have granted $85 million to nonprofits, schools and students in Essex County and beyond. Our ultimate goal is to have 34 thriving cities and towns in Essex County and to improve the quality of life for the region’s nearly 800,000 residents. Learn more at eccf.org.